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Bortles to Minshew and In Between. What Happened

Just two years ago the Jaguars were one play away from the Super Bowl. Since then, they’ve won nine of their last twenty-eight games. Nine.

How did they get here so quickly?

In his post-game press conference after the loss to New England in the AFC Championship game, Head Coach Doug Marrone was spot on when he said, “You don’t just pick up where you left off. You have to start all over again.” He was right. And the Jaguars haven’t been able to recreate what happened in 2017 either in their culture or their performance.

But why? Because they’re a very different team than they were just two years ago.

The league is very sophisticated; everybody knows what everybody else is doing. You can say Marrone has to go or that the locker room has gone tone deaf to his message after three years, but professional football is about the players on the field. Very few schemes or coaches have tipped the outcome. It’s the players on the field, their talent and their execution that makes the difference.

You know the play every team in the NFL runs where the QB sticks the ball in the running back’s gut, pulls it out, fakes to the wide receiver who has motioned through the backfield and then pitches it to the tight end who’s dragging the other way across on the inside of the line? Do the Jaguars even have that play? Are they running a lot of motion and deception to put pressure on the defense? No, they’re not.

Because they’re not built to do that.

They’re built to have a power running game, and throw the ball downfield. But they’re not doing that because their personnel aren’t up to the task at this point. It’s also a team that looks like one that could be built to win in the league fifteen or twenty years ago.

Are you going to beat Kansas City, Baltimore, Seattle and other creative teams like the Rams with this current game plan scoring seventeen or twenty-four points a game?

Obviously not.

Marrone inadvertently hit on at least one of the answers this week.

“You say, ‘I know that a percentage of the time, they’re going to be in this or that,’ but it’s just the personnel,” he said when asked about the Jaguars struggling. “That’s the big thing. You can run the same scheme on 32 teams, but you’re not going to have the same type of results, it’s going to be the personnel, but the problem is that you say,’ Hey, is my cat better than your cat?’”
And that’s where the Jaguars have fallen so quickly in less than two seasons. They’re a very different team with different personnel, than they were in 2017.

On defense they have at least six new starters, yet Defensive Coordinator Todd Wash is still running the same “gap control” scheme. It’s why the Jaguars have given up so many long runs this year where it looks like there’s nobody there. Paul Posluszny, Malik Jackson, Telvin Smith, Jalen Ramsey, Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson are all gone.

Poz retired and the Jaguars miss him as the “thumper” in the middle who was rarely out of position and when that “gap” opened, he stepped in there and filled it. His replacement, Myles Jack, it a phenomenal athlete but too often is swept up on the flow of a play. He isn’t that guy like Poz, or Lonnie Martz or Tom McManus before him, who would just stand there in the hole and say, ‘OK, come on.’ It would be hard to come close to quantifying how much they miss Poz’s leadership and locker room presence.

Jackson didn’t like the way he as being used and left when his contract was up. Telvin has some kind of personal issues that had him leave football altogether. Ramsey played well that year but was a disruptive force and wanted out. This year’s safety combo might be better athletes than Church and Gipson, but those two were where they were supposed to be and slowed some people down. Church’s lapse of judgment in London cost him a spot on the team and they let Gipson walk as a free agent.

On offense the pass catching group was Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee and Marcedes Lewis. They cut Hurns in somewhat of a salary cap move, Lee has been hurt and even though he had something left, they let Lewis walk. Another guy whose locker room presence is immeasurable. He’s still getting it done in Green Bay.

Although D.J. Chark might be an emerging star, the current group isn’t a productive upgrade.

Up front Cam Robinson played well as a rookie at left tackle. Free agent signing Andrew Norwell, signed to replace Omameh at left guard, hasn’t panned out. Norwell has been ordinary at best. I still think Brandon Linder would be a better guard than he is at center. A.J. Cann is a smart, tough and mobile player, but he might not be big enough for what the Jaguars are trying to do at guard. Jeremy Parnell was serviceable at right tackle. His replacement, Jawaan Taylor, could end up being a fixture there but the Jaguars are going through the growing pains that happen when you put a rookie in the starting lineup.

While the salary cap dictates that you can’t keep everybody, the Jaguars decision-making about who to keep and who to let walk hasn’t worked they way they expected.

To start, you can look at the decision to let Allen Robinson to become a free agent. I know he was hurt at the beginning of 2017 but wouldn’t they like to have him back?

Trading Dante Fowler and letting Aaron Colvin become a free agent are understandable. Fowler’s a goofball and Colvin wanted starter’s money.

Selecting Taven Bryan in the first round, a pick make out of hubris and not need, didn’t make the Jaguars any better. They had other positions that begged to be addressed.

Having made the decision to stick with Blake Bortles at quarterback at the time, they needed to get him some help with guys running and catching the ball and besides drafting Leonard Fournette, that didn’t happen.

So when Marrone asked that rhetorical question, ’Hey, is my cat better than your cat?’” Right now, the answer is no.

Minshew or Foles? No Rush

In some ways the game against the Texans in London will help determine what happens with the Jaguars for the rest of this season and beyond. The decision at quarterback won’t be an easy one, and it could have franchise implications for years to come.

With a win at Wembley, the Jaguars will have won three straight with Gardner Minshew at quarterback, moved to 5-4 and have a say in who wins the AFC South.

In that scenario, it’s hard to take Minshew out of the lineup in favor of Nick Foles. You almost have to go with the hot hand.

If the Texans win, the Jaguars are 4-5 and are looking up at both Houston and Indianapolis in the division, at least two games behind with seven to play.

There are plenty of situations in the past where the head coach had to make a decision where to go at quarterback when the established starter has been injured but the backup plays well. Doug Marrone says he hasn’t thought about it one bit, so far.

“Why would I go through scenarios in my mind and waste my time with scenarios when I have to get ready for another game,” he said this week. “If we didn’t have a bye after the Texans game, I think somewhere along the line next week, I would start going through that in my mind. I really haven’t thought about it. The reason why is because I don’t have to, and I don’t want to. I’ll deal with it when it happens.”

I don’t think the money they’re paying Foles comes into the equation right now. If it’s about winning, which quarterback gives them the best chance to do that? You don’t know how this team plays with Foles as the starter. He got hurt after two series in the opener. He did throw a touchdown pass on the play when he was injured. You can go by the old adage that player’s don’t lose their starting jobs to injury. Or you can say Minshew throws all of the old adage’s out the window.

Ultimately It’ll be Marrone’s decision but actually what happens is up to Minshew. Marrone has to take into consideration the emotional impact Minshew has on the team. Call it “Minshew Magic” or call it chemistry but there’s no question he inspires the guys in that locker room.

That’s why it’ll be up to him. If they lose to Houston in London and the Jaguars brass decides to put Foles back in the lineup when they resume in two weeks against Indy, Gardner has to go along with it. I mean really go along.

If he says, “Yeah, I’m cool with it. Nick’s a great player and he’s our starter,” his teammates will buy into it.

But if he comes out and says, “It was a coach’s decision and I’ll stick to that” then there’s trouble in River City. The team will lose their motivation and unless Foles plays lights out, the season will grind to a halt.

There are plenty of examples in the past of injured starters and their backups: John Unitas and Earl Morrall, Morrall and Bob Griese, Jeff Hostetler and Phil Simms. This year Drew Brees was back in the lineup after his backup; Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 as the starter while Brees was out with a thumb injury.

Morrall came in for an injured Griese in game five of the ’72 season. He won 12 straight games for the Dolphins, including playoff wins over Oakland and Pittsburgh. Head Coach Don Shula put Griese back in the game as the starter in Super bowl VII against Washington to finish their perfect season.

Morrall told Shula, “I think I should play, but I’m not going to make a problem.”

These next three games will determine what kind of season 2019 will be for the Jaguars. Three division games, none of them here in Jacksonville. Win two out of three and they’ll be a favorite in four of their last five games (maybe not against the Raiders in Oakland) with a realistic shot at the post-season. Lose two out of three and it’s an uphill slog where they’ll need help to make the playoffs.
Virtually the same scenario happened to the 1978 New York Jets. Richard Todd was the Jets starter but broke his collarbone four weeks into the season. Second-year quarterback Matt Robinson came in and led the Jets into playoff contention over the next twelve games.

“We missed a field goal at the end of the game twelve games in against the Patriots in Shea Stadium to really be in the thick of it,” Robinson recalled.

Head Coach Walt Michaels had started Todd against New England, only to see him falter. He put Matt back under center mid-game. Robinson threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to revive the Jets chances.

“When Walt started Richard the next game, that split the locker room,” Robinson said. “And we were done. We missed the playoffs.”

That’s the dilemma the Jaguars face. Can you flip-flop your quarterbacks and not lose the locker room? If they start Foles against the Colts and he falters, do they return Gardner to the lineup?

Marrone already knows what Minshew can do.

“Sometimes I look and you’re like, ‘That’s a veteran move. That’s a veteran player,’” he said after the win against New York. “He does not play like he was brought into this league, a sixth-round draft pick or something like that. He doesn’t play like that.”

It’s going to have to be a gut call. Win in London and let Minshew keep playing. Foles has shown to be the best reliever in the game if things go south. Lose to the Texans and put Foles in the lineup. He can make throws Minshew can’t. He doesn’t have Gardner’s mobility or his ‘magic’ but he’s a proven winner. Give Minshew a chance to watch and learn some more, give him some seasoning. You know he can play.

There shouldn’t be any rush here. The Packers had Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers on their roster together for three years. Foles and Minshew can co-exist.

As Minshew said when asked what he thought of Foles coming back to practice two weeks ago:

“I think we’re pretty good at quarterback.”